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How New Affordable Housing Development Incentives Could Change Louisville

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The Metro Council on Thursday will take up an ordinance that housing advocates say is imperative for expanding affordable housing options in the city.

At present, Louisville is a sharply segregated city with a zoning policy that may violate fair housing laws, said Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition. This vulnerability stems from zoning policies that ban development of certain housing types in some areas of the city.

The ordinance up for council consideration is seen by fair housing advocates as a first step to address these problems and give low-income residents more housing options outside of historically impoverished neighborhoods.

It's a first step, Hinko said, but a big one.

"This is a moment in time where we choose to be a hero or we choose to be a goat," Hinko said.

The Mixed Residential Development Incentive proposal, or MRDI, is the product of nearly two years of meetings by the 44-member fair and affordable housing subcommittee, Hinko said. If adopted as law, it would allow developers to build multi-family residential housing in areas zoned specifically for single-family dwellings without a zoning change, removing a barrier to a more geographically diverse deployment of affordable housing.

The incentive program would also allow developers to exceed the city's density thresholds, which means more people could live in a given development, allowing builders to boost the return on their initial investments.

For developers to get the incentive, at least 10 percent of a building's units would have to be multi-family, and at least 5 percent of those would need to be affordable under federal guidelines — in other words, people earning less than 60 percent of the median income of the metro area could afford the rent.

So why is this such a big deal?

The map below shows all the land currently zoned for single-family housing where potential new developments could be built. The incentive applies only to land zoned R-4 or R-5, said Emily Liu, director of the city's office of planning and design services.

Hinko said the map shows that there isn't much opportunity left for new development, and this ordinance could ensure that the "little opportunity we have left" for any new housing is done in a way that promotes equality and inclusiveness across Louisville.

The plan does more than just spread out affordable housing throughout the city. Hinko said the places where jobs are concentrated have changed over the past 15 years, a period ruled by zoning policies that promote segregation.

"We are undercutting our ability to grow by not providing housing for workers in the very areas where we want to see new job centers happen," she said. "Without better planning to include the very people we need to work in those job centers, we're not going to have good growth."

But Hinko said even this step, which makes up the city's biggest-ever push for affordable housing when coupled with Mayor Greg Fischer's Louisville CARES initiative, may still have inadequacies.

"We're not invulnerable just through MRDI, someone could say, 'Why did you make it so controlled,'" she said.

And the incentives for developers to build mixed-income housing are just that — incentives. The ordinance stops short of requiring developers to include housing at different price points within their projects, Hinko said.

Liu, with the city's office of planning and design, said Louisville isn't quite ready for that practice, known as inclusionary zoning.

"We are not there yet," she said. "If we want to go there we need to look at the Comprehensive Plan first."

The Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2000 and acts as a guiding document for planning and design in Jefferson County.

She said adopting an inclusionary zoning model would be a major change, and more research is needed about if and how that practice could work here.

But Liu acknowledged that the city is segregated, and poorer residents don't have many choices when it comes to where they live. She said she hopes the council will adopt the incentives program.

"It will allow more opportunity for people to choose," she said.

Gabe Fritz, Metro government's new director of housing and community development, said the incentive is a way to spark private sector interest and get more entities involved with boosting the city's stock of affordable housing.

"Metro government can't do that alone. We have limited dollars," he said.

Fritz and Liu said if the ordinance is approved, the city would work to promote the concept to developers and tout the advantages of the incentives.

But will developers bite?

"I don't think people are champing at the bit," said Chuck Kavanaugh, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Greater Louisville.

He said the program could spark some interest from developers because it offers a more robust incentive than previously discussed inducements for single-family dwelling developments.

There is a catch, he said.

"The issue with MRDI is this: A developer that normally builds a single-family development, they tend not to do multi-family housing themselves," he said. This means that for the new incentives to work, partnerships between developers will be needed.

"This becomes a new concept," he said. "I'm not saying it's not going to work; I'm just saying it's a little bit alien to what we've done."

Hinko said the proposed ordinance is not the radical change the city needs regarding housing, but it's a gentle step in the right direction.

"We respect that people have invested their community and they're ready for change, but they might not be ready for radical change," she said. "We're trying to move things forward without frightening people who have invested in their current community."

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.